Updated Aug. 3, 2009
On Speaking Memorized Answers in the Speaking Test
> Dear Chris:
> I am preparing for the IELTS on 5th,September.Like most of Chinese
students, speaking is the most difficult part to me. Some of my teachers tell
me that the best way to get a high score in speaking part is to learn
something by heart. Do you think it's a good way to improve my oral English?
Learning by heart is the traditional Chinese way to learn things and it is better than not studying English at all. But as a method of learning to use the communicative tool of speaking a foreign language, it is not optimal and it does some harm over the long term if it is the only or the main way you learn a language. As well as that, as a method of preparing for the IELTS speaking test, it is also not the optimal method.
What "harm" do I mean? The main harm is the way people speak in a test such as IELTS, when they speak a 100% memorized answer. I've already written about this at several places on my website. Examiners don't like memorized answers because they feel such answers are not genuine communication. And, in most cases, examiners can detect a 100% memorized answer. The examiners will reduce your score if they strongly feel that several of your answers are close to 100% memorized. By "reduce", I mostly mean they will not give the score that the answer would be worth if it had been naturally produced in the test. Or they will simply ignore the answer, i.e., not consider such an answer when it comes time to give you a grade.
But it is also possible for the examiner to really reduce your score from what the examiner thinks might have been your real Band level, if you had actually shown evidence of this real level by speaking naturally. In fact, if an examiner feels that almost everything a candidate says in the whole test was memorized word-for-word, it is possible for the examiner to award a score of Band 1.0!
For example, let's say you find an answer to a Part 2 topic on the internet, (or in a book or your teacher gives you this answer) and you memorize it, almost exactly word-for-word, and then you speak that answer in the test. And let's say that the examiner has either heard that exact same answer used before, has seen it on the internet or has been given a copy of that answer by the IELTS test managers. Now, let's also say that you spoke naturally in Parts 1 and 3 and you looked like a Band 5.5 in those parts of the test. When it comes time to give you a grade for your test, the examiner will probably reduce your overall score to 5.0, 4.5 or 4.0 (I've forgotten the exact figures they use). The thinking here is that your Part 2 answer is equivalent to a "no answer", which of course damages your overall score. If you had spoken your own sentences in Part 2, you probably would have stayed at 5.5.
[By the way, those "famous" Part 2 answers that are posted on 3gbbs are so full of English errors and other weaknesses that they would qualify only as 5.0, 5.5 or, at the very best, 6.0 level, even if you spoke one of them in a very natural way and even if the examiner believed that this Part 2 answer was produced naturally by you in the test. In actuality, both of these two points would probably not apply if you spoke one of those "famous" Part 2 answers – most candidates would not speak those answers in a natural way and probably the examiners have been given copies of those answers by the test managers and recognize them when they hear them.]
Obviously, if you do choose to learn a long patch of English by heart, you should try to make sure that it is error-free (or almost error-free) and that the level is at about Band 7.0 or 7.5. (Just because it is error-free does not necessarily make it Band 9.) For you to try to memorize Band 8.5 or Band 9 material is unsuitable if you are Band 6.0 or less now.
Furthermore, if you do learn some long English by rote, then you should include, as part of your preparation, mimicking the pronunciation of a native English speaker speaking that material. That is, you should mimic a good quality recording of a native English speaker, someone who does not sound as if they are simply reading a script but is a good actor. Usually, recordings made in China are not as good as those made overseas for this quality of "naturalness". (A recording of a Band 8.0 (or higher) Chinese English speaker would be almost as good as a native English speaker if you yourself are at Band 5.0 to 5.5 now. But there are not many Chinese English teachers, or Chinese English speakers who are Band 8.0 and above.) This mimicking is an important point. To speak what you think is the correct way to say something (especially long patches of English) is not good enough when you are still at a relatively low English level (i.e., less than Band 7.0).
The main way that examiners know an answer is memorized is from the way some (Chinese) candidates speak memorized material in a "wooden" or robotic way. [This is a result of the years of 'reciting' that Chinese students do in school, including reciting rather long passages of English. Your high school English teacher was not seriously trying to teach you how to speak in a communicative way when he or she told you to memorize a certain passage in your English textbook. Instead, they were simply trying to get you to reproduce such things as the correct pronunciation and usage of new vocabulary, and correct sentence structures. When you recited those long passages of English in high school, both your teacher and you did not worry about speaking in a natural way, mostly because there is no speaking test in the 高考 in China but also because the teachers themselves are often not very good English speakers. You need to move beyond this method, or this habit of learning English if you are preparing for a speaking test such as IELTS.]
In addition to speaking in a robotic way, examiners recognize memorized answers from the way in which sentence intonation might be not just lacking in the quality of "naturalness" but is actually incorrect, i.e., what a language learner guesses is the correct way to speak a piece of written English.
In contrast to memorizing long answers, which I don't recommend doing, memorizing short sentences and phrases is natural and is, in fact, a good way to learn material that is very short. But the best way to remember short sentences and phrases is to repeatedly use them in real communication. As well as that, the best way to learn new words is not to memorize them individually but to memorize them in very short word combinations, phrases or very short sentences and to repeatedly use them in real communication. But, to repeat, I don't think memorization is the optimum way to learn to speak longer material in a communicative style. Longer material should be produced by you 'on the spot' by combining several pieces of short, already known or memorized material.
On my website, I have written that I think the optimum idea for your test preparation is, yes, to prepare some answers before the test but to memorize only about 60% to 70% of each answer, i.e., memorize the key words and expressions and very short sentences. Then, by creating part of your answer yourself (say, 30% to 40%) in the test, the examiner will find it less easy to detect that any parts of the answer had been memorized or prepared before the test.
In the long run, (e.g., over several years of English learning) people who use the memorizing method most of the time will not progress in their English-speaking ability as much as people who focus more on producing their own sentences. When you produce your own sentences, you will at first make many errors and you will be relatively slow but you will improve your speed over time if you practice and you will reduce your errors if you use certain methods to focus on these errors. If you never go through this necessary stage of making and speaking your own sentences, you will reach a "ceiling" in your speaking ability and find it hard to rise above that level by continuing with the memorizing method. This ceiling is about the IELTS Band 5.5 level or possibly 6.0.
Another example of "harm" is that, when people only or always speak 100% memorized materials (without ever having the experience of making their own sentences), they don't learn the many small, natural things that people do and say when communicating naturally. In other words, they rarely get the experience of using the language as a true communicative tool. This makes it very difficult to progress beyond a certain level, which, as I stated above, is probably about Band 5.5. One example of these "small things" is the ability to 'repair' a conversation when communication breaks down for some reason.
Over the long term, an additional example of "harm" from mostly memorizing long patches of English as your study method is the non-optimal use of your English study or English practice time. Memorizing long passages of English takes time, time that could be better spent on other activities to improve your English speaking ability, especially the activity of communicating naturally with another person using English.
A final example of "harm" is the psychological effect that only learning by memorizing will have on you. Memorizing is not an interesting activity to do and if your mind associates English learning with an uninteresting activity, this will cause you to lose some interest in learning to speak English. With little or no interest, progress will become much more difficult to achieve.
In conclusion, speaking 100% memorized material in the IELTS test won't get you a "high score" such as 6.5 or above and can actually damage your score. But "selectively memorizing" some key points to some answers might help you get a high score if you are already close to that high score. On the other hand, if your English is weak, say at the Band 3.0 to 4.5 level, memorizing answers might be the best short-term test preparation strategy to help you get a 5.0 (or 5.5). This is probably what the teachers mean when they advise you to memorize answers. However, this is assuming you are a good enough actor to make the examiner think that what you spoke are sentences that you made yourself. Ninety percent of Chinese candidates are not good enough actors to hide the fact that they are speaking memorized answers.